What problems are the Mobile Payment Services trying to solve?

When I heard of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s announcement of mobile payment startup – Square, I loved the simplicity of the service. Few months Jack Dorsey tweeted that Square is processing transactions worth $1Mn per day – that is a cool revenue run rate of $10Mn per year for a two year startup (Square charges 2.75% charge per transaction when paid through credit card)

With very little knowledge of how offline transactions work in US, but it is definitely a card driven economy. Coming to Indian scenario – unsure if any Mobile Payment Services company in India will declare the value of transactions it processes per day. For a country like India, although the opportunity for mobile commerce looks huge – unable to relate if existing mobile payment services are trying to solve any consumer problem.

Back in 2006, when penetration of mobile phones in India was growing at an exponential pace – with falling talk times, it was predicted that India will be one of the largest telecom markets in the world. Well, that has surely come true. In internet world – there was another wave of prediction. Analysts & Enthusiasts found another buzz world – mCommerce which was supposed to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2010.

With time, the definition of Mobile Commerce is itself a cliche’d.

  • Is it mobile commerce when a consumer books a airline ticket online, gets a confirmation and PNR number on to his mobile number . Displays the PNR ar airport counter and gets ticket?
  • Is it mobile banking when consumer receives confirmation of debit/credit transaction on his mobile
  • Or is it when the discovery, intent & transaction for a product/service starts and ends on mobile phone?

The definition is now debatable – but with mobile communication included, online transactions and services have scored a big mile.

The proposition of Mobile Payment Systems is (or was) very simple:

  • Offline Merchants – Allow consumers to walk-in to any shop with his mobile phone, buy stuff and make payments
  • Online Merchants – Tie-Up with multiple online eCommerce/Travel portals – allow them to purchase products through their payment service
  • Own Marketplaces – Create own marketplace on mobile that combine eCommerce, travel, utility services etc and enable payments for such transactions through their own system

Honestly, this would have sounded amazing to everyone back then. Undoubtedly very huge potential – Offline retail transactions are worth billions of dollars everyday, Online Merchants wanting to reach out to very high percentage of consumers who have not come online due to lack of internet connectivity and mobile device seemed very logical, & of course with own marketplace strategy they too wanted to own a sizable chunk of users/revenue and be a destination for commerce.

The mobile boom did happen. It is very difficult to find someone these days without a mobile phone. But then why is it so rare that we don’t get to find people using mobile payment services as it was predicted earlier.

Trying to analyze why did this zillion dollar plan on paper did not translate to even millions of dollars in reality. Here are few thoughts, there may be many other reasons as well that contributed to this –

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Limited size of Market –
With 95% mobile subscription in country on prepaid, and average ARPU of less than 200 INR (& steadily declining with time) – mobile payments or transactions is definitely the last thing on such user’s mind. Addressable market for this service is considerably very small and will be a subset of eCommerce market.

Active Credit Cards in India are declining –
According to recent numbers published in this TOI report – number of active credit users in India has tumbled down from 20.7 Million (in March 2008) to 10.8 Million (in November 2010).

eCommerce Services discovered Cash on Delivery –
India is a cash driven economy and most eCommerce services have realized this by today. COD accounts for anywhere between 30% to 60% of transaction for players who have enabled it. IVR payment mechanism also has widespread acceptance for ordering directly through call center.

Banks play their own Game –
In fact they already have started playing their own game. Banks are launching their own mobile banking applications and promoting it aggressively. That leaves mobile payment services out of their own play-field.

The 3G Magic may not happen –
The 3G magic shall happen to other services, but in my opinion nothing dramatic will happen for mobile payment services companies. There is simply no connection between acceptance of 3G by consumers and why ‘new consumers’ will subscribe to credit cards or link up their bank accounts to a mobile payment service company. They will fight for existing consumers between competition and the banks.

Radical shift to app-economy –
Smart Mobiles & Tablets devices are making a huge difference to the way consumers are accessing services on handheld or portable computing devices. With advent of app-stores and in-app payment systems – the mobile ecosystem has grown more radically than any of these players would have thought about.

Money was always Mobile –
If the pain point that mobile payment systems were (or are) trying to solve was allowing consumers to do transactions wherever & whenever they want – then this consumer pain never existed. Money in whatever format – cash or card was always mobile.

 
I see and hear of Mobile Payment systems usage in India only in the context on prepaid recharges & utility bill payments. But that was not what they aimed for, correct?

To sum up the article –

  • Money was always mobile; the consumer pain point mobile service providers were trying to solve never existed!
  • These businesses were way ahead of time; and in most scenarios got investments before validation.
  • mCommerce model evolved differently and in a way that kept such players outside the ecosystem.
  • mCommerce will evolve along with eCommerce; will go hand in hand – but definitely not before.

In my opinion this vertical is classic case of ‘ahead of time’, ‘investment without validation’, and ‘dynamic changing ecosystem’. Lesson for entrepreneurs and investment managers – make sure your companies are a part of “validated ecosystem” and solves a “valid consumer pain.”

 

  • Bala

    PJ, Thank you for summing up to near conclusive ideation, and reasoning…

    Accidents happen by Choice? There is an Yes and No to this part of the question. Similary, Experiences make you more wiser…I agree you wouldnt say NO.

    The Translation from Paper to M-Commerce was to happen… Convinience, Safety and Handiness is a welcome. However, once bitten twice shy..this is where things got lagged. The vast ecosystem and diverse stakeholders played a role… in crippling it…
    systematically… and derailed.

    Till date ‘Amercian Express’ Credit card is not accepted at many locations..Any comments… This is a case…more so.

    Change from Cash Driven to Card driven and confidence of a Card Driven economy, I believe is a prime, for Mobile Commerce to take off even in the PrePaid Markets.

    The second guess, with Mobile Money, havent taken off / has taken off (wish some body could share more on latest status) will pave a way for mCommerce and services of this nature…

    Quite curoious to study, how ‘talk time’ share service takes off.. This will give us insights too, on the services comfort and confidence being enjoyed by current Customer base and willingness for people to have more money as Credit for usage.

    This will get us an opportunity to grab a pie, to woo Customer for using a service and enjoy, the timely, faster and reliable delivery of whats aspired for…

    –Bala
    Product Manager